Bonhoeffer observes that the people of his day are immunized by modernity against religious impulses. "Man," he writes (Mensch), "has learnt to deal with himself in all questions of importance without recourse to the 'working hypothesis' called 'God' . . . "Everything gets along without 'God'--and, in fact, just as well as before" (168). And he wants to know how Christian preaching and the church should best address this.
What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience--and that means the time of religion in general. We are moving toward a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious any more. Even those who honestly describe themselves as "religious" do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different. . . What kind of situation emerges emerges for us, for the church? . . . What is a religionless Christianity? (141)At the same time, he finds the general theological response to modernity, namely the retreat to the subjective and psychological interior life, inadequate. He is no fan of a psychological flight into the inner life, which is taken up by, he says, existentialist philosophy, psychotherapy [psychologism], and methodism (which I take to mean Pietist, individualist brands of Christianity). Bonhoeffer hates their appeal to an emotional God of the Gaps that approaches a human being only "after his weaknesses and meannesses have been spied out [and in] those secret human places that God is to have his domain" (183). "The secrets known to a man's valet--that is, to put it crudely, the range of his intimate life, from prayer to his sexual life--have become the hunting-ground of modern pastoral workers" (181). "If [someone] cannot be brought to see and admit that his happiness is really an evil, his health sickness, and his vigour despair, the theologian is at his wits' end" (179). Such is not the way of Jesus for Bonhoeffer. I like this characteristic of Bonhoeffer's thought: it is muscular and energetic--courageous. "When Jesus blessed sinners, they were real sinners, but Jesus did not make everyone a sinner first" (Ibid). Such acts attempt to reduce a come-of-age humanity to an adolescent, "to make him dependent on things on which he is, in fact, no longer dependent, and thrusting him into problems that are, in fact, no longer problems for him" (169).
I therefore want to start from the premise that God should not be smuggled into some last secret place, but that we should frankly recognize that the world, and people, have come of age, that we should not run man down in his worldliness, but confront him with God at his strongest point, that we should give up all our clerical tricks, and not regard psychotherapy and existentialist philosophy as God's pioneers. . . . The Word of God is far removed from this revolt of mistrust, this revolt from below. On the contrary, it reigns. (184)Bonhoeffer's way forward is a developing hypothesis. He knew the feel of his insight, but blurred and without edges. He eschewed what he calls a salto mortale, a death-leap back to the Middle Ages. (Here he quotes a song "Oh if only I knew the way back, the long way back to the land of childhood.") And he embraced a way forward without religion, without the "religious a priori" of mankind. Bonhoeffer claimed that Karl Barth had here shown the way by means of the critique of religion Barth discussed in his commentary on Romans (Der Römerbrief, 2nd ed). Taking up the scalpel of penultimate-versus-ultimate that Bonhoeffer discusses in, for example, Act and Being, Bonhoeffer looked for a Christ outside of religion, "really the Lord of the world" (141). He would find Jesus at the center of life, not at the end of it. He would find Jesus not in the clouds, but in the concrete and everyday world. "Jesus claims for himself and the Kingdom of God the whole of human life in all its manifestations" (180).
It is not with the beyond that we are concerned, but with this world as created and preserved, subjected to laws, reconciled, and restored. What is above this world is, in the gospel, intended to exist for this world; I mean that, not in the anthropocentric sense of liberal, mystic, pietistic, ethical theology, but in the biblical sense of the creation and of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.For Bonhoeffer, this new form of faith would use a new language "perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming--as was Jesus's language" (161). It would speak from the courageous openness of the gospel, calling things what they are and not winking at the godlessness of the world (Luther). And it would not require, citing Paul's teaching about circumcision, people to become religious before they could be disciples. It would take "hold of a man at the centre of his life" and send "a man back to his life on earth in a wholly new way" (176).
Similarly, its god would not have his domain in the secret places of the inner world--the Bible doesn't separate the inner and outer. "It is always concerned with anthropos teleios, the whole man" (183). Its god summons his people to a maturity that means "we must live as men who manage our lives without him" (188), etsi deus non daretur (even if God did not exist). Not that God is absent, but that he has "let himself be pushed out of the world and on to the cross.
The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34) . . . He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering. . . . the world's coming of age outlined above which has done away with a false conception of God, opens up a way of seeing the God of the Bible, who wins power and space in the world by his weakness. (188)Bonhoeffer, following Martin Luther, bends to his work holding a theology of the cross. We know God best as he reveals himself in Christ crucified for sinners. And, indeed, the kenotic direction of his thought--where kenotic means "self-emptying" after the Christ hymn of Philippians chapter two--is what electrified the English west when Bonhoeffer's works were translated after the Second World War. This kenotic theology has since been well-worked-out in many directions: in the liberalism of John A. T. Robinson's popular book Honest to God and in Western liberalism (Spong etc.) and in the liberationist theologies heralded by Jürgen Moltmann, whose first published work was an essay on Bonhoeffer, and from there in Gustavo Guitterez and, after him, in a million splintered shards: womanist theologies, queer theologies, theologies of film, aesthetic theology, etc.
Finally, for I had not meant this summary of Bonhoeffer's response to modernity to go on for this length, he describes in two letters written March 19 and July 18, 1944 (within a year of his execution), his worldly Christian. It amazes me that these portrait miniatures are passed over in the literature; I see the same quotes pulled again and again (an epigraphic example of the word-thing fallacy).
In his letter of March 19, Bonhoeffer talks about maturity, about what it means to be a grown up.
Is it not characteristic of a man, in contrast to an immature person, that his centre of gravity is always where he actually is, and that the longing for the fulfillment of his wishes cannot prevent him from being his whole self, wherever he happens to be? The adolescent is never wholly in one place; that is one of his essential characteristics . . . There is a wholeness about the fully grown man which enables him to face an existing situation squarely. He may have his longings, but he keeps them out of sight, and somehow masters them; and the more he has to overcome in order to live fully in the present, the more he will have the respect and confidence of his fellows, especially the younger ones who are still on the road that he has already traveled. Desires to which we cling closely can easily prevent us from being what we ought to be and can be; and on the other hand, desires repeatedly mastered for the sake of duty make us richer. Lack of desire is poverty. Almost all the people that I find in my present surroundings cling to their own desires, and so have no interest in others; they no longer listen, and they are incapable of loving their neighbor. I think that even in this place we ought to live as if we had no wishes and no future, and just be our true selves. It is remarkable then how others come to rely on us, confide in us, and let us talk to them. . . . We can have an abundant life, even though many wishes remain unfulfilled--that is what I have really been trying to say. (127-128)It is tempting to say that Bonhoeffer is but describing a socially respected, middle-class, German man in a society that values reticence, a man such as his father. However, such a conclusion is undone by the details. The "centre of gravity" by which Bonhoeffer's man lives is conceptually close to Bonhoeffer's emphasis throughout his writings, including those on the world come of age, on keeping ultimate things (Jesus's reign) ultimate . Bonhoeffer's Christian is not a stoic without desires but a person who values his desires, if only because they pave the road to riches of character. Desires frame the doorway toward the love of neighbor, a key Christian virtue--but as they are mastered. Those who do not master their desires, who cling to them, do not cultivate virtue and Christian character. Indeed, it is in his desires that Bonhoeffer's man becomes present: not dispassionate, but present for others who "come to rely on us." This is an abundant life, he says, even if desires go unfulfilled. In summary, the Christian in a world come of age resists his desires for others and is fulfilled in each moment, even though his life may be fragmented. Such a man cannot help but become morally attractive. He attracts the nations, so to speak, and they come to hear his wisdom.
In the letter of July 18, Bonhoeffer talks about suffering. The Christian in the world come of age lives a secular life, he says, which means sharing in God's sufferings. He can do that because he is a free man, free to live "unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities" (193). He need not be religious in any particular way. Instead, he accepts himself as created by Christ. Living in the world is a metanoia, a repentance, "not thinking about one's own needs, problems, sins, and fears, but allowing oneself to be caught up into the way of Jesus Christ," which he later describes as being "caught up into the messianic suffering of God in Jesus Christ" (190). Jesus calls his people to live powerless and yet available to the world, as he did and does yet. Jesus is, as Bonhoeffer says elsewhere, "a man for others." This is to live as a blessing. "We have received God's blessing in happiness and in suffering. Yet those who have been blessed can do nothing but pass on this blessing; indeed, they must be a blessing wherever they are."
I hope this post has made a good outline of Bonhoeffer's cultural diagnosis of Western culture, his world come of age. And I hope it has suggested the kind of people and church that Bonhoeffer believes must live in such a world if they would be Christ's. I had hoped to make comments about how Bonhoeffer's points inform my own project and suggest themes that Bonhoeffer may have continued to develop had he lived. This will have to wait.
 Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls this state which is impervious to religious appeal the "buffered self."
 Analogous to discussions of enchantment, disenchantment, and re-enchantment, or the loss of an enchanted universe. On this blog, note the following blog posts: (1) Charles Taylor's ideological diagnosis of modernity, and (2) my description of the enchanted and disenchanted universe.
 Pope Benedict's used this Latin clause in an address to the Pontifical Council on Culture: "New information technologies [and] globalization has [sic] often also resulted in disseminating in all cultures many of the materialistic and individualistic elements of the West. The formula "Etsi Deus non daretur" is increasingly becoming a way of living that originates in a sort of “arrogance” of reason – a reality nonetheless created and loved by God – that deems itself self-sufficient and closes itself to contemplation and the quest for a superior Truth."
 In an earlier letter, Bonhoeffer compared human lives to Bach fuges whose motives are fragmentary but, in God's providence, are made into a whole.